Insight #1: Willpower Isn’t One Thing, It’s Three

Athletic woman performing a core-body exersise while look at the camera.
Athletic woman performing a core-body exersise while look at the camera.

One paradoxical quality of willpower turns on the way it is unevenly distributed in our lives. For example, I’ve earned a few school degrees, which means that I am able to “knuckle down” and study uninterrupted for long hours. But if you put a chocolate chip cookie in front of me, I buckle after five minutes.

How is it that a person can be both disciplined and undisciplined?

A second paradoxical quality of willpower turns on the absence of a single way to manage it. For example, my wife loves goldfish crackers. To satisfy her cravings, she allows herself to…


When the Banality of Evil Meets Social Media

Image of Donald Trump with American flag covering his face
Image of Donald Trump with American flag covering his face

Adolf Eichmann was an unremarkable man before he joined the Nazi party in 1932. He was mediocre in school and to make ends meet, he became a traveling oil salesman. After joining the SS, he coordinated the trains needed to carry out murder on an unimaginable scale. For his leading role, he was convicted of crimes against humanity and executed on June 1, 1962.

Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher who fled Germany during the war, covered his trial. What struck Arendt was that Eichman needed no great evil intention to perform catastrophically evil deeds. …


Sebastian Purcell’s Philosophical Biography

Image of couple smiling framed through a hidden hole in a bookshelf.
Image of couple smiling framed through a hidden hole in a bookshelf.

If you ever run into a professional philosopher, ask them how they ended up on that track. Their answers almost always follow a winding path. In that respect, my own life is no different.

But I’m atypical even for a philosopher. I write and research on topics like Aztec and Mayan philosophy that most other professionals don’t even know exists. And my strange life explains why I think that folk philosophy — the wisdom of ordinary people who have lived through extraordinary circumstances — is worth listening to.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably start at the…


3 Unique Skills For Cultivating Joy In Life

Image of Matthew McConaughey seated on stage at an event.
Image of Matthew McConaughey seated on stage at an event.

Epicurean philosophy, which developed around 300 BC in ancient Greece, holds that the art of happiness consists in a life of ethical hedonism. Matthew McConaughey’s recent memoir, Greenlights, also advocates ethical hedonism as the path to living well, but not the Epicurean kind.

An episode from McConaughey’s life might clarify the philosophical stakes.

In his early 30s, McConaughey found himself emotionally exhausted after some months of physical indulgence at the Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles. So he left Hollywood behind, traveled to Africa, and made efforts to learn from local villagers. Soon, his reputation for strength landed him in a competition.


The art of meaningful gifts

Father and daughter joyfully sharing a breakfast meal.
Father and daughter joyfully sharing a breakfast meal.

As a child, an idea I didn’t understand was that someone could enjoy giving as much as receiving. The reason we do, Buddhist and Stoic philosophy teach, is that it is the connection we forge through gifts that brings happiness — not the items themselves.

Many of us learn this lesson through disillusionment. When I was 8 years old, I wanted a radio-controlled car. My fantasy was to race it behind our house in a dirt field with friends. Initially, I was overjoyed unwrapping the toy, but after an hour I was bored.

The reason? What I really wanted was…


A brief defense of Stoicism’s most controversial advice

A man kissing a woman on her head. Both are happy.
A man kissing a woman on her head. Both are happy.

Stoic philosophy is known for its toolbox of “spiritual exercises” to help you deal with life. But it seems limited with its advice on relationships. Epictetus (50–135 CE), a prominent Stoic philosopher in Rome, argues that to be happy, you must detach from the things and the people you love:

If you kiss your own child or wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being; for when they die you will not be disturbed (Handbook, 3).

How does that advice even make sense? Attachment makes relationships possible at all. Let me explain with a story.

My first…


5 Practices To Enrich Your Daily Life

A man sitting in a hammock facing away from the camera and towards a waterfall.
A man sitting in a hammock facing away from the camera and towards a waterfall.

One of the paradoxes of life is that to be happier you don’t have to get more stuff or do new things. You only have to live the life you already have and be more fully present in it. I can give you a story to explain.

After planning for more than a decade, my wife and I finally travelled to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. While there, we thought to visit one gorgeous waterfall. The problem?

Everyone else had the same idea.

There were literal lines of people to take photos in front of the falls. So we fidgeted…


How pessimistic thoughts lead to rich lives

Woman smiling holding a watermelon slice in front of her face.
Woman smiling holding a watermelon slice in front of her face.

Derren Brown is a celebrity magician and philosopher. Counterintuitively, to live a happy life he recommends that you should become a pessimist.

To explain, suppose that you enter a raffle and win a new car. Suppose further that it just happens to be your dream car. Picture that car. Imagine its color. Imagine how it feels as you drive it. Imagine how envious others will be watching you drive it (I’m joking). Now how much happier will you be? For how long?

When answering those questions, did you consider how much it would cost to maintain? How expensive the insurance…


4 Spiritual Exercises in Friendship, Gratitude and Indulgence

Smiling woman holding two small pumpkins in front of her eyes.
Smiling woman holding two small pumpkins in front of her eyes.

Stoicism has been misunderstood as the philosophy of killjoys since nearly its inception in 300 BCE in ancient Greece. Yet its goal isn’t to take away life’s pleasures, so much as aid your selection of the right ones.

Seneca the Younger (4–65 CE), a Roman Stoic who lived during Nero’s reign, puts the point straightforwardly:

I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all; but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it (Epistle 14).

Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude and indulgence — as are most other holidays. …


What Crosses Your Lips Pre-Frames Your Mind

A beautiful dark-skinned woman with flowers in her hair is smiling.
A beautiful dark-skinned woman with flowers in her hair is smiling.

The noted psychologist, Robert Cialdini, relates a story that changed his mind about the impact of small words. He was invited to give a talk at SSM Health, a non-profit in the medical industry renowned for its stratospheric performance. Yet he was told that in his presentation he would have to replace specific words.

  • Instead of “bullet points” say “talking points.”
  • Instead of “attacking a problem” say “approaching a problem.”
  • Instead of “beat the competition” say “outdistance the competition.”

Befuddled, Cialdini asked: why? Why would such small words matter?

The answer, he discovered, is that what crosses your lips pre-frames…

Sebastian Purcell, PhD

Philosopher. Analyst. Happiness Researcher. | I Recover ancient wisdom for modern life | sebastianpurcell.com

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